In the end, all the Toronto Maple Leafs managed to do was put a late scare into the big bad Bruins.
That’s because the biggest and baddest Bruins of all – at least in a pure hockey sense – took a big bite out of their counterparts on the Leafs, the John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman line, on the way to a 6-4 win on Wednesday night. The first-round NHL playoff series is now tied 2-2 with Game 5 back in Boston on Friday night.
But here’s the funny thing: It happened in such a way that the Maple Leafs can convince themselves they actually did not play that badly even though their penalty killing was atrocious and they were back to making mistakes in their own end at the worst possible times. The series may be down to a best-of-three with two of the games in Boston but the Leafs were talking brave after the loss.
Who knows? With the way this series has gone, they might be right. They did outshoot the Bruins 42-31 Wednesday night.
On the score sheet, the Bruins’ big line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak came back in a big way in Game 4. They combined for three goals and three assists, which matched their point totals in the previous three games.
However, the Perfection Line, as it is known, was not together for the entire game. Once the Bruins established a lead, head coach Bruce Cassidy broke up the Bergeron line, as many suspected he would to escape the frustration of playing against the Tavares line.
But when he needed them, such as when the Leafs tied the game early in the second period and scored a couple of times in the third to make it close, Cassidy reunited the Bergeron trio. They also played together on the power play, which scored on both of its opportunities.
The Tavares line did not enjoy any success against the Bergeron line at even strength or when they were helping to kill penalties. Tavares, Marner and Hyman all finished at minus-3 on the night.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock sounded like a guy trying to convince himself he still had a chance.
“I thought we had real good energy tonight,” he said. “I didn’t think we had brain all the time, not what we wanted. We kind of turned the puck over, two real big mistakes on the penalty kill. I thought we ended up giving up freebies.
“I thought we had good energy and, for periods of the game, I thought we played really good. Too many turnovers in the first period trying to play too high-octane instead of just looking after the puck and playing right like we've been playing. I thought we had good energy. I think three of the four games we've had real good energy and did lots of good things. Just got in our way a little bit here in this one.”
When it was all over, Pastrnak had two goals, both of them set up by Marchand, while Marchand scored once while he was out with the third line. Also scoring for the Bruins were Charlie McAvoy, Zdeno Chara and Joakin Nordstrom, who put one in the empty net in the final minute.
Auston Matthews scored twice for the Leafs with his second starting a pushback in the third period that had the Bruins on the run for a bit but ultimately fell short. Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott had the other goals.
As the halfway point of the third period approached, the Leafs looked as though they were already thinking about heading to Boston for the next game. The Bruins had them locked down.
But then Matthews scored his second goal of the game on a power play at 11:52 and Travis Dermott’s shot from the point sailed into the net through a crowd a couple of minutes later and it was 5-4 Bruins.
The Leafs pulled goaltender Frederik Andersen in the final minute but could not finish the push. The Bruins scored into the empty net to finish them off.
“That was the message in our locker room after the first and second [periods], just keep battling and find a way,” Matthews said. “There’s no quit in this locker room. Obviously, we gave ourselves a chance, just not enough.”
It was an odd first 40 minutes for the Maple Leafs. They controlled the play for long stretches, especially in the second period, but coughed up a couple of bad goals on power plays, let the Bruins grab the lead again quickly after they managed to tie the score and found themselves trailing 4-2 going into the third.
Referees Wes McCauley and Brian Pochmara set the tone of the game early with an iffy holding call on Leafs forward Connor Brown. The fans were not happy with the call, especially when the Bruins cashed in on the power play. They grew increasingly frustrated with others as the game progressed.
However, there were questionable calls on both teams and the Leafs fans need to remember all of their angst in Game 2 when the Bruins were allowed to run riot and buried the Leafs by a 4-1 count. The Leafs are better off when the games are called tightly in the long run.
But on this night they were unable to capitalize. The Leafs had two ineffectual power plays in the first period, scored on another one but allowed the Bruins to score on both of theirs.
Hyman scored late in the first period to get the Leafs on the board and then Matthews tied the score 2-2 early in the second with a strong individual effort. He gloved a high pass at the Bruins’ blue line, moved in and bounced a shot off Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask and into the short side of the net.
It was just the sort of goal the Leafs needed. One star player stepping up when their big line was being outplayed by the Bergeron group. But the Leafs never took it and ran.
Pastrnak struck a couple minutes later and less than two minutes after that, scored again on the power play to put the Bruins back in charge.
Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, who once again led the team in ice-time with just under 25 minutes, felt they did enough good things to feel good about what’s to come.
“Credit to them but we did a good job of battling back,” he said. “I think there were periods of the game where we really controlled the play and got good chances. It’s important that we realize what makes us create those opportunities and do more.”
The Leafs will also think a lot about taking those 42 shots.
“It’s a good sign, that we’re getting opportunities,” Rielly said. “You take the positives. I didn’t know we had that many [shots].
“That’s a good sign we’re clearly doing something right so it’s important we stay focused. We keep with the game plan and make life tough on their goaltender if that’s the case.”